While we're in the collective mood to withdraw bankers' knighthoods and express outrage at their bonus payments, how about we also send a JCB down to the St Pauls side of the Millennium Bridge and dispose of some unwanted steel litter lumps? I speak, of course, of the 'HSBC Gates', that provide a sub-ironic guard of honour to anyone approaching Tate Modern from the north side of the river.
Long before the refrain of 'it's unfaayerrrrrrrr' rang out around Westminster in response to the monetary gluttons of the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, these ominously permanent monuments always offended me. The Millennium Bridge always had a self-conscious air of civic pride about it, that New Labour and (the bridge's architect) Lord Foster would scarcely allow to go unnoticed, back in the heady days of Tony Blair's pre-Iraq creativity love-in. The bridge would link the old and new of this great 'World City', the religious and the secular, allowing the opposing towers of Bankside and St Pauls to stare each other down. But this civic esplanade would also force people to dodge six metallic obstacles, dumped inexplicably and unapologetically by HSBC bank.
Arguably there was a certain honesty about the HSBC gates, which reminded people what this 'World City' status was really all about. But the audacity of HSBC in colonising this space is quite unlike any other forms of corporate sponsorship or public private partnership which characterised post-1989 neoliberalism. Where Shell and BP provide sponsorship for exhibitions curated by curators, for the benefit of the public, the HSBC Gates exist only to be the HSBC Gates. They are not only called the HSBC gates, they have the words 'HSBC GATES' engraved into them (in the top left corner in the photo above). Signifier and signified are fused. Imagine if Daniel Liebeskind had been invited to erect a memorial to Western capitalism, but while it was still experiencing its final vibrant flush.
By no conceivable standard can they constitute 'art', when their inspiration, funding, design and purpose all share a single source. There is no plaque to explain them, credit an artist, provide their year or thank HSBC for funding them. They are simply the HSBC Gates. Nor do they serve any utilitarian economic purpose, of the sort that can usually be squeezed out of any form of capitalism, no matter how deranged. They have no beneficiary other than themselves, making them a form of what should best be described as 'philanthronanism'. All of which poses the question: why on earth is a bank allowed to leave their rubbish lying around like this?
What has always troubled me the most about them - though also offered their one plausible justification - is that they will outlive all of us, and probably also our civilisation. They look as if they are built for eternity. I wonder how much a bank has to pay to be associated with a public monument or space forever. How did the Department of Culture Media and Sport build the business case for such an investment? Did they use the same techniques that environmental economists use, when modelling the risk of a nuclear reactor leaking in 1,000 years time? Should HSBC have also written the word 'GATES' in a form of meta-historical code, like nuclear safety experts have to, for the benefit of future civilisations?
Archaeologists from the year 3,000 will dig through the rubble of what once was London, discover signs of what was probably a place of worship to the north of the river, a power station (maybe an art gallery) to the south, then in between, the best-preserved late-second-millennium artefacts ever found. Magnificent steel structures, with scarcely a scratch upon them, will be lifted from the mud and taken away for cleaning. Over the following years, archaeologists will debate the meaning of 'HSBC GATES', who 'HSBC' might have been and how anyone could have attained the power to plant such robust structures, with his name carved into them, in such a location. Speculations on the culture and rituals of the early 2000s will be developed on this basis, and thanks to the HSBC Gates, some of them will be spot on. Perhaps this was their justification.